A Cinderella Story
Does the world need yet another cinematic reworking of the Cinderella story, and so soon after Ella Enchanted went all Shrek on the fairy tale? Well, no. But teen starlets like Hilary Duff need to work, lest their fickle fans forget they exist, and one rehashed storyline is as good as another—so here comes yet another modernized riff on the old fable.
You don't have to follow the teen magazines to know that there has, of late, been some sort of rivalry between Duff and her fellow teen idol Lindsay Lohan. Whatever might be going on behind the scenes, it is probably fair to say that Duff is losing the battle for big-screen supremacy. While Lohan has shown impressive range and lent her wide-eyed, crinkle-faced bewilderment to such intelligent romps as Freaky Friday and Mean Girls, Duff is all cherubic cuteness and bland perkiness; she doesn't have much of a screen presence, and she often rattles off her lines as though she has just learned them and wants to get them out of the way before they fade from her memory.
What's more, Duff's choice in films suggests a reluctance or an inability to grow up. In A Cinderella Story, Duff plays Sam, a high-school senior with a mean, selfish stepmother (a suitably daffy Jennifer Coolidge) and two dumb, selfish "out-of-step-sisters." Sam dreams of going to Princeton University because her father used to call her a princess and, well, "Princeton" kind of sounds like "princess," doesn't it? Sam has a secret admirer—they swap anonymous e-mails—who turns out to be Austin (Chad Michael Murray), football jock and student body president. Meanwhile, Sam's best friend Carter (Dan Byrd) has a crush on Shelby (Julie Gonzalo), a snobby but air-headed cheerleader (when Carter bids her "Adieu," she says, "A what?") and Austin's ex-girlfriend. So far, so typically high school—but the Cinderella template imposed on these characters makes the story seem more infantile than that.
Consider this. Sam learns that Austin is her secret admirer when they meet at the school's homecoming dance, but because Sam's face is hidden behind a sequined mask, and because she has to leave before Austin can remove her mask and kiss her, Austin has no idea who she is. So he puts up signs all over the school asking where his "Cinderella" is—the name being applied to Sam because she went to the dance dressed in a wedding gown provided by one of her father's friends and colleagues (Regina King). And somewhere in all this, you may begin to wonder whether high-school seniors—and especially jocks—would actively, and publicly, identify themselves with such a children's story.
The story's fairy-tale parallels are necessitated by its central theme, which has something to do with the difference between reality and fantasy, and the way we adopt personae that allow us to express aspects of ourselves that usually remain hidden, even as they hide who we really are; Sam's friend Carter, a self-proclaimed "method actor," is especially prone to adopting new identities, from rap stars to Zorro. But it's hard to take this theme seriously when the characters literally assume fairy-tale roles that, at this stage in their lives, they would probably prefer to leave in the nursery—and it is hard to take the film's dialectic between reality and fantasy seriously when the film itself is very much a fantasy in its own right. At one point, Sam worries that Austin will reject her if he finds out she isn't the "Malibu Barbie" that she thinks he wants her to be. And yet, even as she says this, you can't help but notice that Duff is, herself, something of a Barbie doll—pretty in the way that all teen pop stars are pretty, even when they are playing unattractive outsiders.